Waterside Summer Series attracts A-list performers

By Peter Hendra, Kingston Whig-Standard

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 8:10:06 EDT PM

Unlike a decade ago when she took over as artistic director of the annual classical music concert series held on Amherst Island, Beverley Harris doesn’t usually have to pursue top-flight musicians anymore.

Cecilia String Quartet 1

“We are now able to bring what I call ‘A-list’ performers to this small festival, and this small festival has now developed quite a little reputation for itself,” Harris explained about the Waterside Summer Series, which kicks off Sunday evening. “I find that often artists are now contacting me, particularly those that have been here before.”

One of the reasons is the way they’re treated. “We don’t kind of shake hands as they arrive, do their gig, and here’s your cheque, thank you very much, and off they go, which is what I think is what they probably experience in a lot of urban settings,” she said before apologizing for the noise as she removes a pie from her oven.

Instead, the performers typically arrive the night before and dine at Harris’s island home. They then have the following day — after staying at the island’s “lodge” — to rehearse in the hall in which they’ll perform. And there’s a post-performance gathering complete with food and drink in one of the “lovelier homes” on the island, she said. “I think this hospitality perhaps has a lot to do with them saying, ‘Gee, we just love it here and we’d love to come back.’’ Harris suggested.

Being a gracious host isn’t the only reason the island has become a destination of choice for classical musicians.

Each of the series’ five concerts is held at St. Paul’s Church — it started in 1994 as a fundraiser for another, smaller church, St. Alban’s — which can accommodate only 140 spectators. “It’s very up close and personal, and it’s a knowledgeable audience, and I think the artists right away sort of twig to that,” Harris said. “They realize by the reception and the fact that, when they’re performing, you can hear a pin drop, that the audience really, really appreciates it.”

Waterside is now a not-for-profit festival that now regularly attracts classical musical enthusiasts not just from the island, but also from places such as Ottawa, Toronto and, naturally, Kingston and area. The series now has around 75 sponsors, most of which are individuals rather than corporations. “I think people are just knocked out by the quality of what we’re presenting here,” Harris suggested. “And they enjoy, if they don’t live on the island, the whole outing: the ferry ride, a lot of them will have a picnic, that sort of thing.”

As for the annual lineup — it runs only until mid-August, Harris explained, so that it’s still light out during the concert’s 20-minute intermission — she likes to musically “mix it up.” “We’ve got a string quartet, we’ve got two opera singers this year, we’ve got a piano trio, we’ve got violin and piano, and we have Janina Fialkowska, who will do the piano recital,” Harris said.

One thing the performers can’t have, Harris said, is an attitude. “I’ve maybe had one, or two, in 10 years, what I would call divas, who, for obvious reasons, I haven’t invited back,” she said with a laugh. “There are certain things on this island that you cannot offer, and if these people are just used to five-star hotels and whatnot, it just isn’t here. So they have to come and appreciate the island for what it is.”